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The Death of Direct Instruction

And why we need to revive it.

The winds of education blow circuitously. When I was in high school, direct, instruction was par for the course. I sat through class after class, lecture after lecture, learning the content knowledge and skills I would need for the future.

I diagrammed sentences in 9th grade English and precariously balanced equations in chemistry. Through rote memorization and endless amounts of practice, my skills grew one upon the other. Not that I loved this form of learning, but learn I did.

Although my motivation waxed and waned as I moved through school, I always knew what was expected of me. I was explicitly taught what I needed to remember and know, and I jotted these lessons down in my notes (by hand, no less).

When I became a teacher in 2005, I utilized these same methods of teaching and learning by asking my students to take notes by hand, diagram sentences, create vocabulary charts, etc., etc., etc.

But the winds of education are a-changing. As I have progressed in my career, there has been a noticeable shift away from the tried-and-true methods of direct instruction.

Direct instruction is out, inquiry (or constructivist) learning is in. Direct instruction is for the old-school, traditional teachers stuck in their ways; inquiry learning is for the coolest of the cool who encourage students to “discover” content in interesting ways.

But why can’t it be both? Why do we have to choose?

As a self-proclaimed progressive educator who wants to eliminate grades, restructure schools, and build relationships with students (gasp), I have surprised even myself with my pleas for teachers to incorporate direct instruction back into their educational toolbox.

There is a danger in shifting too far away from evidence-based teaching practices. And there is plenty of research to support direct instruction as a powerful teaching method.

The Research

According to the Glossary of Educational Reform, direct instruction is: “(1) instructional approaches that are structured, sequenced, and led by teachers, and/or (2) the presentation of academic content to students by teachers, such as in a lecture or demonstration.”

The first part of the definition indicates that a fundamental aspect of direct instruction is the structured and sequenced presentation of information. This is how most of us were taught in the “olden days” of traditional schooling. Through explicitly stated objectives and a march to mastery of material via practices and assessments, students are given the information they need to build skills.

The second part of the definition is what scares teachers the most. The word “lecture” negatively connotes a strict classroom of passive learners unengaged in the content and instruction. However, when we take out the word “lecture” from the definition, the word “presentation” is the most powerful. It is up the teacher to present information in a logical and coherent sequence, which is a cornerstone of direct instruction philosophy.

In 2018, educational researchers explored the research of direct instruction in their aptly titled study, “The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research.” A total of 328 studies were analyzed from 1966–2016, and the conclusions support earlier findings of the effectiveness of direct instruction.

A systematic approach to learning is crucial in learning, yet widely ignored.

According to the researchers, the theoretical bases on direct instruction is that it “builds on the assumption that all students can learn with well-designed instruction. When a student does not learn, it does not mean that something is wrong with the student but, instead, that something is wrong with the instruction.”

The key component of direct instruction is teaching for mastery. Something our educational system fails to address repeatedly.

Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute cites education professor Marcy Stein, “If you fail to bring students to mastery in lessons 1–60, they’re going to be in trouble on lesson 70.”

We pass students through grade levels without evidence of mastery. If a student receives a D in 8th grade English, then how can we expect this student to have the requisite skills to succeed in 9th grade English? We can’t, but we expect it anyway.

John Hattie, a prominent educational researcher, synthesized direct instruction research stating, “the messages of these meta-analyses on Direct Instruction underline the power of stating the learning intentions and success criteria, and then engaging students in moving towards these. The teacher needs to invite the students to learn, provide much deliberative practice and modeling, and provide appropriate feedback and multiple opportunities to learn.”

Research has widely shown that for students to master the material, which should be the cornerstone of any classroom, then they must systematically build their skills in a stated and explicit sequence.

Dr. Kerry Hempenstall, a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, cites Engleman’s research of the importance of avoiding ambiguity in instruction. While teaching, it is vital to keep errors to a minimum, continue to focus on a task until mastery, and teach the required essential skills explicitly.

“Despite the very large body of research supporting its effectiveness, DI has not been widely embraced or implemented” (“The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula”).

So, what’s the problem? If direct instruction is sound educational practice, why do most teachers shy away from explicit teaching techniques?

The Perception

There is a misguided perception of how to utilize direct instruction. Robert Pondiscio succinctly notes, “for a significant subset of teachers…the mere thought of a set curriculum imposes an intolerable burden on their autonomy and creativity.”

Teaching is a profession lauded for implicit autonomy. We are the kings and queens of our classrooms, and we have the power and authority to teach as we will. I am not even going to pretend that I don’t enjoy the autonomy that teaching offers me as an educator.

However, the definitive swing towards constructivist practices in the classroom overrides the research that supports the explicit teaching and practice of skills.

Teachers want the freedom to be able to bounce from idea to idea and ask students to make those important cognitive connections. However, without a foundation of skills and knowledge, those leaps in higher order thinking are impossible.

Dr. Kerry Hempenstall cites researchers Lemov, Woolway, & Yezzi (2012) response to that argument with: “learning generally doesn’t work that way…Cognitive leaps, intuition, inspiration — the stuff of vision — are facilitated by expending the smallest amount of processing capacity on lower-order aspects of a problem and reapplying it at higher levels.”

So although teachers encourage students to discover the content material, such as locating and synthesizing research for an English or social studies class, there are explicit instructional skills that are needed before students are able to engage in more complex tasks. In this example, students need to be taught how to locate sources, evaluate them, and then pull evidence from them to support an argument. Something I learned in college, through repeated practice and exposure, not in high school through random bouts of lessons on analysis.

The beauty is that direct instruction and constructivist approaches to learning all share the idea that students need to make sense of their learning. But “the difference lies in the nature of the information given to students, with DI theorists stressing the importance of very carefully choosing and structuring examples so they are as clear and unambiguous as possible” whereas constructivist theorists enjoy and encourage the messiness of learning or the ambiguity involved in learning a new skill (“The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula”).

There is a way to do both. I enjoy project-based learning and the inquiry approach as much as the next person; however, the research that supports the way students learn cannot be ignored.

Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

The Revival

Constructivism does not have to be the sacrificial lamb. We can incorporate both direct instruction and inquiry into a classroom with a deliberate focus on lessons and units that scaffold the skills necessary to learn the material.

We need to teach students before setting them free to learn on their own.

This starts with teacher education programs. My personal educational journey did not teach me much about teaching. I learned how to (sort of) plan a unit of instruction, but I was pretty much left to my own devices my first year of teaching and beyond.

In order to truly understand how to scaffold material in a logical and coherent way, teachers must first understand brain development. We often assume what a student is developmentally ready to learn with little concern as to what they are physiologically ready to learn. There is a dearth of information on adolescent development in teacher training programs; however, adolescent development should be taught in tandem with educational practices.

Without understanding the child, how can we assume to know how they best learn?

According to researchers, Paulson, Rothlisberg, and Marchant (1998), “attention to developmental issues is important because teachers believed that knowledge of adolescent development would influence their teaching practices.”

With an understanding of development, it is much easier to design lessons and practices that reflect the brain development that is currently occurring.

In addition to teacher education, there has to be a noticeable shift in externally-directed curricular programs, such as Common Core.

“Many current curriculum recommendations, such as those included within the Common Core, promote student-led and inquiry-based approaches with substantial ambiguity in instructional practices” (The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula”).

Without the people at the top recognizing the importance of evidence-based research in instruction, there will still continue to be confusion and ambiguity regarding best practices. Recommendations of curriculum need to revolve around the explicit teaching and practicing of core skills in order to progress to the higher order thinking desired by so many educators and administrators.

Robert Pondiscio cites Doug Carnine, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon: “we give lip service to evidence…we say ‘evidence-based’ because we have to fit with the new cultural norm, but it’s not a core value. It’s tradition and ideology that prevails in education.”

Ah, tradition. The classic, “but we have always done it this way” argument. Education tends to err on the side of tradition instead of innovation. We prefer to play it safe in most areas and disregard evidence in favor of teacher and curricular autonomy.

There is a happy medium. But it has to begin with the educational policymakers and leaders before it trickles down to teacher practice.

In short, we would not expect an athlete to learn to shoot a basketball or hit a baseball without explicit instruction on how to accomplish the skills. We would not expect a child to play the piano without first showing her how to read the notes.

In other content areas, such as physical education, music, and art, there is an intentional scaffolding of skills. These skills build upon each other until students are ready to tackle the more creative aspects of their activities creating their own physical activity regimens or composing their own music.

This same scaffolding practice should be implemented in all content areas. If my students do not know how to use a comma, then I have to explicitly teach them through modeling, practice, and re-teaching. I can’t expect my students to intuit how to write a paragraph or use punctuation correctly. But for some reason, it has become okay to take a cursory glance at the content and move on without mastery or evidence of learning.

It is never too late to improve, and by its very nature, education should be an industry modeled on improvement utilizing the latest research. Bring direct instruction back to life.

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Samantha Ryker

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Writing about education and personal growth. Professional educator and advocate of #educationreform. Follow me @samantha_ryker

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